The Dog Walking Debate. Do Pet Owners Really Exercise More?

Introduction

Getting regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your health. It can help reduce your risk of major illnesses like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. But for many people, finding the motivation to exercise on a consistent basis can be a real challenge.

This is where owning a dog can potentially help. There is research showing that dog owners tend to be more physically active than non-dog owners. But does simply having a dog actually lead people to exercise more? Or are more active people just more likely to get a dog in the first place?

In this article, we’ll explore the evidence around dogs and physical activity. We’ll look at whether acquiring a dog motivates people to walk more. We’ll also discuss how factors like breed and age of the dog can impact activity levels. And we’ll provide tips for using your own dog to help you get more exercise.

Do Dog Owners Walk More Than Non-Dog Owners?

Several studies have shown that dog owners tend to walk more steps per day compared to non-dog owners. One study published in Nature in 2019 found that on average, dog owners walked 22 minutes more per day and took around 24% more steps daily than non-dog owners (Westgarth et al., 2019). Another study published in BMC Public Health also found higher step counts among dog owners, with dog owners getting around 30 minutes more walking time per day (Mičková et al., 2019).

In terms of specific step counts, one study found dog owners walked an average of around 5,400 steps per day compared to non-dog owners who averaged around 4,200 daily steps. Other studies have found dog owners average 7,500 steps per day, while non-owners averaged closer to 5,900 steps. Overall, research consistently shows dog owners walk anywhere from around 1,000 to 2,000 more steps each day compared to those without dogs.

Do People Get a Dog With the Intention of Exercising More?

Surveys of dog owners provide insight into their motivations for getting a dog in the first place. According to a 2019 study published in BMC Public Health, getting more exercise is frequently cited as a reason for dog ownership. The study surveyed over 1,000 households in the UK about their motivations for owning dogs. Of dog owners, 60% said “to encourage exercise” was a major reason for getting a dog. This was second only to “companionship” as the top motivation (Westgarth et al., 2019).

Additional surveys have found similar results. A 2010 study by Reeves et al. surveyed dog owners in Michigan and found that 58% of participants cited “to provide exercise opportunities” as a motivation for owning their dog (Reeves et al., 2011). And a survey of veterinary clients in Australia found that 84% of dog owners cited “exercise/walking” as a benefit of dog ownership (Bennett et al., 2012).

So while companionship and enjoyment of dogs are likely the primary motivations for most owners, quite a few people do report exercise and activity as major reasons for getting a dog. This suggests that some portion of dog owners at least expect or intend for dog ownership to increase their activity levels.

Sources:

Westgarth, C., Christley, R.M. and Christian, H.E., 2019. An analysis of perceived incentives and barriers to dog walking for older adults. BMC public health, 19(1), pp.1-10. https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-016-3660-2

Reeves, M.J., Rafferty, A.P., Miller, C.E. and Lyon-Callo, S.K., 2011. The impact of dog walking on leisure-time physical activity: results from a population-based survey. American journal of public health, 101(3), pp.436-442.

Bennett, P.C., Rohlf, V.I. and Mornement, K., 2012. Owner response to companion animal death: Development of a theory and practical implications. Practice, 34(5), pp.287-291.

Differences Between Dog Breeds and Activity Levels

There are significant differences in activity levels between dog breeds, largely related to the size of the dog. Smaller dogs tend to require less daily exercise than larger, more energetic breeds.

According to Company of Animals, small dog breeds like Chihuahuas and Yorkshire Terriers need around 30-60 minutes of walking per day. Medium sized dogs like Cocker Spaniels and Bulldogs require 45-80 minutes. Large dogs such as Labradors, German Shepherds, and Golden Retrievers need 60-120 minutes of exercise daily.

a person walking a large breed dog

A 2017 study published in Scientific Reports analyzed the walking habits of over 20,000 dogs in the UK using activity trackers [1]. The results showed Afghan Hounds were the least active breed, only being walked for around half an hour per day. In contrast, Border Collies and Springer Spaniels were walked over 2 hours daily.

Understanding a dog’s typical activity needs based on their breed can help owners provide sufficient exercise. However, each individual dog is different, so it’s also important to watch for signs they need more or less exercise than average.

Other Ways Dogs Encourage Activity

Dog ownership provides numerous opportunities for physical activity beyond just taking your dog for a walk. Two of the most popular activities that dogs encourage are playing fetch and visiting dog parks.

Playing fetch is a classic game that most dogs love. It provides a chance for your dog to run and chase, fulfilling their natural instinct to hunt and retrieve. You can play fetch anywhere with items like tennis balls, frisbees, or dog toys. The frequent movement of throwing the object and having your dog run back and forth is a great way to get your heart rate up and burn calories. Just 15 minutes of playing fetch can count as moderate physical activity for both you and your dog.

a person playing fetch with their dog

Taking your dog to a dog park is another way to be more active together. At an off-leash dog park, your dog can interact with other dogs through running and playing. As the owner, you’ll be constantly moving to watch, call, and walk around the park. A study showed people walking without dogs at a dog park averaged 44 minutes of exercise versus 68 minutes for those with dogs. The social aspect can also motivate you to visit more regularly. Seeking out new dog parks to explore together makes for engaging weekend activity.

Beyond play, having a dog inherently leads to more activity because of the responsibility and routine of owning a pet. You’re motivated to take them on walks, hikes, road trips, and more than you would without a furry companion tagging along. Dogs make great workout buddies on trails and their excitement to explore new outdoor places rubs off on owners. The unconditional affection of dogs helps people feel less alone and more inclined to get out and about.

Potential Downsides of Owning a Dog

While owning a dog can encourage more physical activity, there are also some potential downsides to consider. One is that the time commitment involved in properly caring for a dog can limit time available for other forms of exercise.

According to a study from Purdue University, the average dog owner spends 1.4 hours a day on dog care and exercise (1). That’s over 500 hours per year, or the equivalent of over 60 8-hour work days. For busy individuals or families, finding this extra time for dog care can mean less time for other physical activities.

Another potential downside is the risk of injuries associated with dog walking and play. A UK study found dog walkers were four to five times more likely to suffer a serious injury than non-dog walkers, often due to falls while walking dogs on leashes (2). Injuries from chasing or playing with dogs are also a risk, especially for older adults.

While dogs can encourage activity through walking and play, their care and risks should be carefully considered against any expected benefits to exercise levels.

(1) https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2021/Q1/pet-ownership-may-influence-life-satisfaction-impact-health.html

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2651004/

Tips For Using Your Dog to Exercise More

There are many creative ways to get more exercise with your dog beyond just going for a walk. Here are some ideas to maximize your workout potential when including your dog:

– Take your dog hiking on nature trails or up hills to increase the intensity. Going up and down inclines requires more effort. Just be sure to bring water for you and your dog. See: https://www.smalldoorvet.com/learning-center/wellness/best-ways-to-exercise-with-dogs/

– Play fetch games like throwing a ball or frisbee in an open field. The frequent movement and running back and forth gets your heart pumping. Some dogs will happily play fetch for 30 minutes or more.
a person playing fetch with a ball and their dog

– Go jogging or running together. Start slow, especially in warm weather, and build up distance gradually. Be mindful of your dog’s health limits. Some athletic breeds like Border Collies may be capable of handling long runs. See: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/how-to-get-fit-with-your-dog/

– Swim together for a full-body workout. Retrieve toys from the water for your dog or just let them swim beside you. Always provide a doggy life jacket for safety.
a person swimming with their dog

– Do an exercise circuit at home alternating between your own exercises like squats, push-ups, jumping jacks and tricks or short commands for your dog to follow. The intervals get you moving.

– Make your regular walks more effective exercise by walking briskly, incorporating hills, and avoiding too many long rest stops. Use a fitness tracker to monitor your pace and aim to keep your heart rate elevated.

The Verdict: Does Dog Ownership Lead to More Exercise?

Based on the research summarized in the previous sections, there is evidence that dog owners tend to get more physical activity than non-dog owners. A 2019 study published in Scientific Reports found that dog owners walked on average 22 minutes more per day compared to non-dog owners. This amounted to around 1,300 extra steps per day for dog owners.

Another key study from 2008 published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine examined the physical activity levels of over 5,900 participants. After controlling for various demographic factors, they found that dog owners engaged in approximately 30 minutes more of walking per week compared to non-dog owners.

Therefore, while the difference in activity levels is not enormous, research consistently shows that dog owners do tend to exercise more on a weekly basis, with approximately 20-30 more minutes of walking per week. The biggest difference appears to be for dog walking itself, suggesting people generally walk their dogs regularly. Beyond walking, dog owners do not seem significantly more active in other forms of exercise compared to non-dog owners.

Caveats and Considerations

While research shows that dog owners tend to get more physical activity than non-dog owners, there are some important caveats to consider.

Dog ownership alone does not guarantee increased exercise. Much depends on the owner’s commitment to providing proper care and exercise for their pet. Responsible dog owners make sure to take their dogs for walks and playtime on a consistent basis. But some owners may fail to dedicate sufficient time for those activities.

Other factors also influence people’s exercise habits, with or without a dog. These include:

  • Employment – Having a flexible job or work-from-home arrangement makes it easier to walk a dog during the day.
  • Other interests and hobbies – If someone is already athletic and enjoys being active outdoors, they will likely exercise more regardless of dog ownership.
  • Age and health – Younger, healthy adults tend to be more physically active in general compared to seniors or people with chronic conditions.
  • Weather and geography – Inclement weather or lack of parks and walking trails nearby make dog walking challenging.

Additionally, dogs require much more than just exercise – they need regular veterinary care, grooming, training, food, and attention. The costs and responsibilities of dog ownership should not be underestimated.

While studies show positive correlations between dog ownership and increased activity, individuals’ circumstances, abilities, and commitment ultimately determine the exercise they and their dogs get.

Conclusion

This article set out to explore the question of whether owning a dog inspires people to exercise more regularly. Based on the research cited, it appears there is a correlation between dog ownership and increased physical activity. Dog owners tend to walk more often and for longer durations than non-dog owners. However, the studies also reveal nuances around what types of dogs and owners are most likely to exercise consistently together.

In closing, owning a dog certainly provides many opportunities to engage in more physical activity. However, owning a dog alone does not guarantee increased exercise. Dog owners must intentionally commit to walking, playing, and exercising with their pets to receive the full benefits. With the right motivation and a suitable canine companion, dog ownership can absolutely inspire you to get more steps in each day. Just be sure to select an energetic breed suited to your lifestyle, and stay focused on actively engaging with your dog.

Scroll to Top